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Organising to innovate – innovation must be social


By Neil Dickson

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs has said that “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”. Organisations are increasingly seeking to harness innovation as a means of differentiation, and many – such as General Electric and Proctor & Gamble - have successfully refocused around innovation in order to lead their chosen markets.

Others have been less successful. One problem is that each company needs to innovate in a way that suits its own context: just because something worked for Apple or Google, that doesn’t mean it will work for your own particular corporate culture.

Successful innovation starts with being clear about the reasons why you plan to invest in innovation and what you hope to gain from it. You need to determine the relative priority of innovation against all the other things you need to do to survive and build competitive advantage for the future.

Having established those parameters, you need to think about which particular approaches to innovation will work for your organisation, in your context. There are various models to help you do so. 

Once you have determined the relative importance of innovation, and your preferred approach to it, you then need to create the conditions and competence for innovation to succeed. Above all, organisations which want to benefit from innovation must recognise its social nature. Walking around almost any organisation, you’ll come across an informal, un-recorded conversation about where the company could innovate. Harnessing that “discretionary effort” is critical.

To produce the best ideas, people need to interact. To innovate in business or technology, therefore, you need to innovate socially to encourage interaction. By “social innovation” we mean that organisations must invest in cross-functional relationships that last longer than a single project: enduring social networks that transcend the usual departmental boundaries. They must also build lasting relationships with partners external to the organisation.

Steps that might help, depending on the organisational context, include:

  • Taking a proactive approach to building long-term relationships with people outside the company. (If you’re successful there will be an equally strong drive from consumers and other external parties keen to be part of your world.)

  • Ensuring effective cross-business-unit interaction, and a focus on project-based working and flexible resourcing, bringing diverse perspectives together.

  • Allowing employees’ interests and passions to play a role, and create the mechanisms for individuals to have a personal stake in innovation projects. A recent project by the Swedish Government showed that although their civil servants were not very creative at work, many were incredibly creative in their own time – they are now looking at ways to tap into this creative potential at work.

  • Focusing on continuous learning across the organisation, and encouraging behaviours driven by values and principles rather than by rules and control.

  • Celebrating a continuous flow of innovation success, supported by a balanced portfolio. BMW proactively engages car enthusiasts to gather an ongoing flow of ideas for their new car interiors.

How can you unlock the energy and passion of your people to make innovation happen? One of the first steps is to set inspiring and stretching innovation ambitions, and then define specific challenge areas relating to them (for example Nestle may set a challenge of “restaurant-quality dining at home”, or Jobcentre Plus may focus on “skill acquisition through hobbies”). It is the leaders’ responsibility to generate momentum and excitement around these challenges.

Leaders must also find ways to bridge gaps between established silos, facilitating knowledge sharing across the organisation. One way is to create “innovation hubs” around known innovators, whether individuals, teams or communities of practice (virtual teams). These hubs can both bring like-minded people together and help to disseminate best practice in innovation across the organisation. It is also effective to put in place metrics and incentives that promote collaborative behaviour and shared ownership of the outcomes.

Not only will all this social innovation help raise the innovation game, but there is also a good chance it will improve engagement and motivation through the tough times as well.

To find out more about PA Consulting Group’s expertise in HR innovation, contact